TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors have been in a state of flux now for more than six months.
Who’s coming? Who’s going? What’s next?
It’s part of the NBA existence: the league is always in motion, but sometimes it can feel more confusing and unsettling than others.
The Raptors aren’t apologizing for it.
“You have to shock, you have to hit, there has to be some kind of friction some way,” was how Raptors president Masai Ujiri described the need to reboot a team culture he felt had slipped in the past year, when he announced the firing of head coach Nick Nurse back in April.
The Raptors are in that kind of space now. The decision by Fred VanVleet to go to Houston in free agency was the second major shift — and most shocking — after the decision to part ways with Nurse and hire the well-regarded but unproven Darko Rajakovic to replace him.
There is persistent speculation that Pascal Siakam — the team’s leading scorer, second-most prolific playmaker and ultimate home-grown success story — could be traded before the regular season starts and perhaps much sooner as the NBA’s transaction market simmers.
One way or another, there will be plenty of new faces around the club. In the wake of Nurse’s departure, all but one of the coaching and video staff — a group that ran 18-deep last season — have been replaced for the 2023-24 season, which begins this week with the Las Vegas Summer League.
Kevin DiPietro, a ‘Day 1’ employee and travel coordinator, is no longer with the Raptors and there have been changes to the team’s travelling security detail as well. Even Jamaal Magloire, the local high school legend, 12-year NBA veteran and player favourite whose booming voice — “work” was his battle cry — was constant in pre-game workouts is no longer part of the on-court team and will serve only as a community ambassador.
Rajakovic’s new staff was announced Tuesday featuring a total of seven assistant coaches with only former Raptors assistant Jama Mahlalela and returning assistant coach Jim Saan having previous ties to the team.
It’s a new group without any previous NBA head coaching experience dealing with a roster that is still a collection of moving parts. Not the easiest situation. “Darko is going to have his hands full,” said one NBA scout I spoke with.
Just like at the trade deadline in February, the league is hovering to see if VanVleet’s decision to take Houston’s three-year, $130 million offer will trigger other moves. Atlanta has been tied to Siakam for weeks and was trying to re-engage the Raptors over the weekend after the VanVleet news broke Friday night. Several other teams are believed to have checked in also.
If Siakam goes, the focus will turn to O.G. Anunoby — the smooth-shooting, all-NBA defender who remains on the watch list for several teams, the New York Knicks especially.
As usual, the rest of the league can only watch and wait. The Raptors aren’t sharing any PowerPoint presentations on what they have planned next. In the past few weeks, I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with a league source that hasn’t included a question about what direction Toronto is headed in, what their plan is or how challenging the front office can be to get a read on.
“They’re not the easiest team to deal with, I’ll just say that,” was how one league insider put it.
Which in itself is no sin. The job is to be better than the other 29 teams in the league, not make them comfortable.
But there’s a sense too that some of those same questions are being wrestled with internally and it’s been going on for a while now.
Will the departure of Nurse and VanVleet and the arrival of an entirely new coaching staff be enough to change the vibes, which weren’t the best last season?
Or are more changes coming?
Almost since the then-struggling Raptors went into Orlando in early December and got swept — knocked around, really — in a pair of games by what was, at the time, a Magic team with the worst record in the NBA, everything has been off-kilter. Not quite right.
Sources have described a team where the veterans — VanVleet and Siakam especially — were deeply frustrated with the younger players on the roster and VanVleet let them know about it, something the younger set didn’t appreciate at all. Nurse wasn’t able to bridge the divide as key players kept getting hurt and open three after open three drew only iron.
The losing made everything worse.
Subsequently, the 2022-23 tale of woe began to play out in ways that most remember but would prefer to forget: consecutive beatdowns at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans and Brooklyn Nets on the road signalled a malaise that was urgent enough that Ujiri had to address the team personally and second-year star Scottie Barnes specifically. It was the first of a number of times that Ujiri felt the need to make his feelings known about the way the team was playing and individuals were performing.
He did it again in the weeks before the February trade deadline, laying into the team for selfish play and poor body language. The message: straighten up or be shipped out.
Things were tense enough that Nurse was planning his exit even then, believing he would be fired. He may well have welcomed it.
Except nothing really followed other than weeks of trade rumours that touched almost player in the rotation.
As the team headed into the next significant transaction period — the NBA Draft on June 22 and free agency on July 1 — there was more speculation and rumours. Players were reaching out to each other for reassurance. “Have you heard anything? What’s going on?”
Meanwhile, Rajakovic was meeting with groups of his new players on a get-to-know-you basis seemingly unaware of some of the issues that had been brewing the previous season and without addressing some of the issues that may still be looming.
Behind the scenes, VanVleet’s departure hasn’t been characterized as a loss that can’t be recovered from, even if he was a former all-star and the team’s only proven point guard. The Raptors were ready to increase their initial three-year, $90-million offer to include a partially guaranteed fourth year that would have brought the total guarantee to $100 million — a nice, round figure that was an important threshold for the formerly undrafted guard.
The Raptors felt they might still be in consideration if the Rockets were offering two years at $83 million, but when they went to three years and $130 million, there was no counter-offer. Instead, just best wishes for a player who had a number of factors break exactly right when he hit the open market, from the Rockets’ decision to not use their cap space to sign James Harden to a new head coach, Ime Udoka, who saw VanVleet as the locker room presence he needed to help mature one of the NBA’s youngest teams.
It was a remarkable confluence of events for VanVleet, who at times regretted not taking the full four-year, $114-million extension the Raptors were prepared to offer before the season as he struggled alongside the team. Toronto was in a tricky position at the trade deadline — moving VanVleet for a relatively paltry return (the Clippers were offering a package centred on Luke Kennard) would have been a tough sell locally and trading him somewhere he wouldn’t want to re-sign would have hurt his market value too. As well, it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do by a player who had offered the franchise so much. In some ways not trading VanVleet at the deadline for a low-ball offer was similar to how the Raptors honoured Kyle Lowry’s wishes to help him get to Miami in free agency. It may not be perfect asset management, but in the long run it’s good people management, which matters too.
VanVleet moving on hastens the trajectory the Raptors were already heading towards — a team with 21-year-old Scottie Barnes as its focal point, both on the floor and off, with 25-year-old Anunoby as the most likely last veteran standing.
This doesn’t mean Siakam being moved is automatically going to be the next shoe to drop.
But it has been an uncomfortable stretch for the two-time all-NBA selection. He turned down a three-year max extension at the beginning of last season in the hopes that he would qualify for his third all-NBA team and thus become eligible for a ‘super max’ extension worth 35 per cent of the salary cap.
But he fell 15 voting points shy of that goal and is still waiting for news on an extension of any kind after becoming the first player in franchise history to log a season in which he averaged 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game and was joined by superstars Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James as the only five players to do it league-wide this season.
In the meantime his long-time teammate, VanVleet, has left and the Raptors have let go two members of the coaching staff — Rico Hines and Earl Watson — that Siakam considers close to family and were hired in part to support his development in Toronto.
You have to wonder how the delay in getting an extension done — the two sides have yet to meet formally on the subject — is sitting with Siakam, or how he would feel if a career-best season wasn’t enough to earn one, or an offer for the full four years and $183 million he would be eligible for.
Or what if the deal came with caveats regarding role or usage as the Raptors try to reconfigure how they play under Rajakovic?
Meanwhile, just as the Raptors did in making the call not to exceed their in-house budget for VanVleet, maybe they are ready to look at the cold facts which — simplified to be sure — say that if Siakam’s best season didn’t move the Raptors past the .500 mark and instead left them in the play-in tournament, maybe testing the trade market isn’t the worst idea?
It’s all complicated and multilayered stuff. The Raptors would surely like to head into next season with all the questions about their roster that hampered the team last season buttoned up and answered, but there’s a way to go before that can happen.